When asked about this film’s journey to the big screen, screenwriter Scott Neustadter explains: “It was much easier to sell network execs on a film ‘From the team that brought you (500) Days of Summer’ than to set up an R-rated dark teen drama.” But this coming-of-age love story seems to be both a quirky, well-written indy film as well as a dark story with enough alcohol, sex, and offensive language in the first 10 minutes to earn its R rating.
That’s not to say our hero, Sutter Keely (Miles Teller), is an especially bad guy. He’s just a high-school senior used to living in the “now”—from his geometry teacher to his girlfriend to his mom, he’s happy to tell people whatever they want to hear so long as it keeps life pleasant. But when Sutter loses his girlfriend, goes on a drinking binge, and wakes up on a stranger’s lawn, he’s confronted with an unpopular girl named Aimee (Shailene Woodley), and they develop a relationship he can’t drain and toss like a whiskey bottle. With graduation approaching, Sutter has to decide whether he will overcome his failures (including alcoholism) to embrace the nows of the future.
Based on the 2008 novel and National Book Award Finalist, The Spectacular Now follows the same “realistic” storytelling vein as The Perks of Being a Wallflower and other YA problem novels, purposefully pushing the boundaries of decency to capture what life is ostensibly really like for teens. But while the film critiques Sutter’s behavior, it gives viewers plenty of time to savor the “good life” before they have to grow up again. The scene in which Aimee loses her virginity perhaps most fully displays how devastatingly unrealistic this “realism” is.
Sutter’s hedonism eventually shows more value for others, but with no eternal purpose, he’s still grasping for ends that will inevitably unravel. And that’s the darkest part of this “spectacular” teen drama.